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I am in a difficult marriage. My husband struggles with different kinds of addictions and is emotionally detached from me. It used to be pornography, but he stopped that and now can’t stay off of his phone and obsesses about his hobbies. I have tried countless ways to express my desire to have him tune in to our marriage and be an equal contributing partner. To cut down on my own pain and resentment, I have stopped having any expectations for him. I am grateful for anything positive he does, but I don’t expect him to do anything in our relationship anymore. I’m struggling with understanding the difference between hope and expectation. By letting go of expectations, do I have any hope that my marriage might improve, or am I just accepting the fact that my marriage will always be a struggle? Can you still have hope for relationships to improve if you no longer have expectations?
You’re clearly worn out from trying to get your husband to engage in a healthy relationship with you. It’s understandable that you are feeling unsure if it’s realistic to have any expectations since he’s been so unresponsive. Please know that having expectations in marriage is healthy. In fact, as long as you stay married to someone, you’ll continue to have expectations. Let’s break this down so you can decide what’s the best way to proceed.
A committed relationship without any expectations isn’t much of a committed relationship. In marriage, if we’re going to give ourselves completely to another person, we need to know what we can expect. Likewise, in a business partnership, if we’re going to invest our time and money in building something, we need to know exactly what we can expect from our other partners. Healthy, committed relationships are built over time as two people trust each other to follow through on clear expectations, which then builds deeper trust, then leads to a long-term commitment to that relationship. If you remove the expectations, then you can’t know what to hope for in that relationship.
In our relationship with the Godhead, we are given clear explanations as to what each party can expect in the relationship. These expectations are outlined in the scriptures, teachings of modern prophets, ordinances we participate in on a regular basis, and in the covenants we make and renew. These expectations give us hope, even if we experience moments of uncertainty or confusion. The Plan of Salvation is reassurance that there are certain things we can expect, if not now, then certainly in the eternities.[i] As you can see, expectations and hope are inextricably connected to one another in all intimate and committed relationships.
Even though expectations are an essential part of a covenant marriage, this doesn’t mean that we can’t adjust them. Every married couple eventually discovers that expectations in marriage need to evolve as each spouse learns more about themselves and the other. Even though there are some basic expectations common to marriage (i.e., fidelity, trust, etc.), other expectations likely fall under the category of “preferences.” In my view, expectations are more central to the security of the relationship. They make up the framework of knowing what you can count on in the relationship. Preferences are more fluid and don’t make or break the stability of the relationship. It’s been my observation that if someone has a lot of energy around a personal preference, it’s likely tied to a deeper relationship expectation that needs to be explored and understood.
Your desire to have your husband tune in and connect in his marriage is more than a personal preference. You need to know how you can cope with the consistent message he’s sending that you don’t matter to him. You have made your expectations clear to your husband and he’s not responding. Since it’s impossible to eliminate expectations in marriage, let’s talk about how to address them in a healthy way.
First, you have to decide if his behavior is a deal breaker. Now, this is a serious consideration and something that needs time, counsel, and personal revelation. Elder James E. Faust described a deal breaker for marriage as “a prolonged and apparently irredeemable relationship which is destructive of a person’s dignity as a human being.”[ii] If his behavior meets this standard, then it’s likely that your expectation is one of those foundational pillars of marriage and needs to be honored.
If you determine this isn’t a deal breaker behavior, then it’s important for you to get clarity on what you can live with and adjust accordingly. You may decide to stay in the relationship and continue to express your expectation that he confront all of his addictive behaviors and reengage with you and his family. Having a third party present (such as a therapist or bishop) can help create a secure place to share the impact his choices are having on you and the relationship.
Of course, you can always adjust your expectations for your husband’s behavior as well as for your own. As you adjust your expectations, please don’t secretly hope that his behavior will change. This would mean that you really haven’t adjusted your expectations. This could border on manipulation as you hope he picks up on your lack of interest and responds favorably.
Also, if you’re adjusting your expectations, it doesn’t mean you need to stay silent or indifferent. You may expand your tolerance for certain aspects of his behavior, but refuse to be silent about other aspects. As you adjust your expectations, notice where you feel resentment surfacing. This will help you identify where the line is that you need to hold. And, remember, as Brene Brown says, “clear is kind”, so make sure you always speak directly about your expectations.[iii]
As you probably know, one of the hardest things about living with someone in recovery from addictions is the ongoing battle to eliminate patterns of avoidance and numbing. If he’s still working a recovery program, it’s likely these patterns will improve. If he’s not working an active recovery process, then this is important for you to consider as you examine your expectations.
Even though your husband isn’t giving you much hope right now, you still need to feel hopeful about the future. Even though we work to trust others, placing hope in fellow humans is risky business. We will eventually be let down by someone, so it’s important to make sure you’re placing your hope in your Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that, “submission to Him is the only form of submission that is completely safe.”[iv] In the Guide to the Scriptures, you’ll see that “hope” is always tied to Jesus Christ.[v] Even though you may have no guarantees for your future with your husband, you can begin feeling the peace and hope that comes from the “High Priest of Good Things to Come.”[vi]
If you choose to stay in this relationship with him, you’ll find yourself grieving the marriage you hoped you would experience. Even though you can feel hope in the Savior and his ability to lift you above your current circumstances, it’s still healthy to give yourself permission to name and grieve what is important to you. You may not talk about these expectations as much (or at all) with your husband, but you’ll still recall what you’re missing from time to time. Loss and grief are part of our mortal journey and can help us clarify what matters to us.
The impact of these addictions on your marriage may last for years as you struggle to find the best solutions. Even though you are facing some difficult adjustments to expectations, you can know that things will get better. This is the difference between hope for a specific outcome versus ultimate hope in Jesus Christ and his ability to offer complete healing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminds us:
“We came to earth to face issues of mortality in the form of trials, temptations, disease, and death. It is essential for us to face personal struggles because opposition is a crucial part of Father’s plan. I suppose everybody will have some kind of an experience where they say, ‘I’m never going to be happy again.’ Well, we are going to be happy again. That is also a part of the plan. It’s the very nature of it. Hang on and hope.”[vii]
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
If you or a loved one are struggling with the devastating impact of pornography issues, sexual betrayal, and relationship trauma, I have created a 6-part audio program to help married couples strengthen their recoveries. You can purchase the 6-hour audio program here for a limited time at the reduced price of $29 – https://geoff-steurer.mykajabi.com/marriage-recovery
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.